Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Problems: When We Can Bear them no More

I’ve been intensively reading through the Old Testament to get a better understanding of the whole counsel of Scripture.  The Old Testament disturbs me, but what I like about it is the variety of stories of God interacting with His people.  The Lord is creative and He doesn’t always do things the exact same way, but there are similarities with how He works in both the Old and the New Testaments.

One of the stories that troubles me most is in Exodus 5.  God had told Moses to confront  Pharaoh and tell him to release the Isrealites from slavery.  This made Pharaoh angry and he responds by giving more work to the Hebrews with less help from the Egyptians.   When the slaves can’t pull off the extra labor, the foremen are beaten.

This is the part I can hardly take, and neither could Moses.  Lash after lash, whip after whip imposed on the people of God because Moses obeyed the Lord.  The suffering is carried out by non-believers, but God let it happen, is primarily responsible, and let his prophet squirm: “Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you done evil to this people?  Why did you ever send me?’” (vs. 22)  And this is the tension we see over and over in the Scriptures: God allowing and being directly responsible for the pain of His people.  There are four observations about this principle I’d like to make:

1).An individual will suffer intensely for a period of time because of a corporate purpose.
            I don’t like this but it’s true.  An individual Isrealite got beaten but his entire family got spared from slavery later.  In the New Testament, John the Baptist suffered in jail and by death.  Jesus didn’t go to His own cousin and save his life; instead He went about the town healing crowds and performing miracles.  And Jesus sent word to John in Luke 7:23 saying “blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me.”  Basically he said, “John, you are blessed if you still believe me even though I am physically take care of others instead of you.”  And to this day John the Baptist is an example to many who are hated by the world.  It only matters what Jesus thinks of a person, and of His imprisoned, dirty cousin He said “that’s the greatest man ever born.”

2) Suffering is meant to be temporary.
            There is a fascination these days among evangelicals who equate suffering and worthiness to be a disciple of Christ.  I have heard individuals and pastors pray that God would allow us to suffer in order to bring Him more glory.  In my opinion, these people do not know what they are asking.  They are actually trying to be better than Jesus.  When the Son of God faced the horrendous cross He basically said, “Father, if there is any way, get me out of this.  But ultimately let what You want be done and not what I want.”
            The truth is, we can’t physically undergo suffering on this earth for long periods of time.   We will either die or be relieved.  Jesus suffered horribly for a few days.  He lives in eternity with all the riches of Heaven.  Jesus only spent 33 years of His eternal life messing with our junk-- the rest of His life is posh!  Those who follow Him will mimic His pain but more so His pleasure.  My own prayer is not that God would “let” me suffer for His sake, but that I will be obedient no matter what wonderful or horrible circumstance comes my way.  Obedience is what brings God glory, not suffering.

3) God usually brings relief right after the sufferer hits despair.
            I’m sure it was not fun to be the Egyptians’ slaves.  Although not ideal, slavery was manageable because the Isrealites were provided with food, water, and shelter.  The work was burdensome, but they were physically able to get the jobs done.  Being beaten was nearly unbearable, so was the insurmountable amount of extra work that was laid upon them.  This is what drove them to cry out more.  And this is when the Isrealites went from crying out to God to crying against God.  When believers get to that point where they are tempted to question God’s work or if He cares, or if He’s timely and attentive, that’s usually the signal they will soon watch God do the impossible.  This happened in the New Testament with Lazarus’ sisters.  These sisters had just watched their brother die.  Jesus didn’t go to comfort them immediately or heal their brother on purpose.  He actually said, “for your sake I am glad I was not there.”  Jesus intentionally let His friends suffer so that they would believe His power to raise the dead. Jesus always has more than the physical stuff in mind.  He’s got a spiritual plan that He’s working.  Our breaking points will turn into our belief and proof if we will keep our eyes open to what God is doing.
            I don’t know why God does this but I just know He does: he often lets His people go without earthly needs and will only give to them when they ask.  The Isrealites complained over and over that God didn’t feed them in time, or give them water promptly.  But God said all they had to do was ask.  The New Testament confirms this.  James 4:2 “You do not have, because you do not ask.”  And if we aren’t getting what we ask for, maybe it’s because we don’t want to honor God with what we are asking for.  If all we want to do is consume, God is not obligated to contribute.  So we often spend our time complaining against God and arguing with other people.  Here’s the challenge: you need physical provisions so you can live?  Ask for them.  You want to be debt free so you can give?  Ask God.  Keep asking.  And keep obeying.  You want a God-glorifying marriage?  Ask for one.   But if all you want is to be pampered and treated like a queen while your husband does the work…well, good luck with that.  (What’s amazing is that even in a case where the marriage fails beyond one person’s control, God gets the glory by the one person’s obedience throughout the marriage.)
            Do you find yourself continually arguing with a family member, boss, co-worker or God?  There’s a way to get what you want, if you can look past your selfish ambition.  The first step out of an argument is asking:  God’s people need to learn how to ask and what to ask for.

4) In almost every believer’s life, there will be seasons of both protection and pain.
            Those individual beatings of the Isrealite foremen were the last incidences of oppression done by the Egyptian taskmasters.  After this incident, God sends a number of plagues—that ONLY affected Pharaoh’s people.  The Hebrews were in a protective bubble watching pests bother and destroy other parts of the land, hail and darkness cover the Egyptians property but not their own, others die while they lived, and being amidst the sick while they stayed healthy.  Our New Testament Paul discovered this and writes about it in Phil 4:12 “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”

And now for my big understatement: Suffering is hard.  There are a lot of questions I won’t have answered until Heaven.  But the Bible teaches me that there’s a story being written about each of our lives.  Bad stuff is going to happen.  More good stuff is going to happen.  And in my own story, I’m either going to crumble or carry on.  I’ll keep complaining or I’ll learn to be content in a God who is in control.  I will pout or I will persevere.  And when the end of my life draws near, I want to be one of the many who hear, “well done.  You didn’t give up on Me.”


  1. Wonderful post Tonya. This actually goes in line with a different blog post I very recently read talking about suffering. It's common amongst Christians, and thinking back I would have to admit I've often said or thought this myself too, to believe that God will not give us more than we can bear. What this blog pointed out and I can agree with from all I've learned in the last several years, is that this belief just isn't true.

    People get this idea from 1 Cor. 10:13. This verse isn't talking about suffering though, it is talking about temptation. Yet people, myself included, have used this verse to say that God will never allow us to take on more than we can handle. Contrast that with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9. "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."

    Paul says they were given MORE than they could endure. In the end though, it was to bring glory to God, because in the times when we KNOW that we cannot make it through ourselves, we can see much more clearly that it is God who carries us through. In a sense, the bigger the trouble or suffering, the bigger the miracle. Just think of the story of Lazarus. Jesus said it was good that he didn't come to heal Lazarus before he died, and it was for the benefit of the mourning sisters! What's easier, to heal the sick or to raise the dead? Jesus had a bigger miracle in store.

  2. Wow Joe. That is a GREAT point. Thank you SO much for sharing.